Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 4, 2012

Obama Gets Engaged to the Brotherhood

You would think that after wasting the first year in office on a foolish attempt to “engage” Iran, Barack Obama would have had his fill of outreach to Islamists. After the Iranians treated his overtures with contempt, even Obama eventually got the picture and switched to an equally ineffective course of feckless diplomacy aimed at isolating Tehran. But apparently the president’s unfulfilled desire to make friends with Islamic extremists is still driving American foreign policy. As the New York Times reported yesterday, the administration has embarked on a full-scale effort to “engage” with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

This is, to say the least, a major reversal of a decades-long American policy to treat the Islamists as a threat to the stability of the region as well as to the U.S.-Egypt relationship. But like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who embarrassed himself trying to portray the Brotherhood as moderates in a series of columns, the State Department is seemingly convinced it can establish a productive working relationship with it. This is a glaring mistake not just because it is based on a misperception of the Islamists’ goals regarding democracy and willingness to keep the peace with Israel. It is also a slap in the face of the country’s military government that remains the only obstacle between the Brotherhood and the creation of another Islamic republic.

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You would think that after wasting the first year in office on a foolish attempt to “engage” Iran, Barack Obama would have had his fill of outreach to Islamists. After the Iranians treated his overtures with contempt, even Obama eventually got the picture and switched to an equally ineffective course of feckless diplomacy aimed at isolating Tehran. But apparently the president’s unfulfilled desire to make friends with Islamic extremists is still driving American foreign policy. As the New York Times reported yesterday, the administration has embarked on a full-scale effort to “engage” with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

This is, to say the least, a major reversal of a decades-long American policy to treat the Islamists as a threat to the stability of the region as well as to the U.S.-Egypt relationship. But like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who embarrassed himself trying to portray the Brotherhood as moderates in a series of columns, the State Department is seemingly convinced it can establish a productive working relationship with it. This is a glaring mistake not just because it is based on a misperception of the Islamists’ goals regarding democracy and willingness to keep the peace with Israel. It is also a slap in the face of the country’s military government that remains the only obstacle between the Brotherhood and the creation of another Islamic republic.

The argument in favor of engagement is based on the notion that the Brotherhood is a fact of life and, as the parliamentary elections have shown, clearly the most popular political force in Egypt. However, that doesn’t mean its intentions are compatible with the creation of a freer and more democratic Egypt, let alone U.S. interests. The ideology of the Brotherhood, like that of the more radical Salafis who also came out ahead in the elections, is still geared toward the creation of an Islamic state and, notwithstanding the credulous reporting of writers like Kristof, the end of minority religious rights and any vestige of freedom in Egypt.

The administration’s anger with the Egyptian military is understandable as its ham-handed attempt to repress dissent and to retain its hold on power have undermined any pretense the Arab Spring will lead to genuine freedom there. But if the only choices available in Egypt are the Islamists and the military, you have to wonder about the judgment of a president who would choose the former. While administration sources say they want to keep communication open with both sides, any attempt to undermine the military at this point constitutes a clear intervention on behalf of the Brotherhood.

Comparisons of American policy toward Egypt with the Carter administration’s foolish support of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s push to oust the Shah from Iran have been largely unfair. The Mubarak government’s fall was inevitable, and nothing Obama did or didn’t do affected the outcome there. But engagement with the Brotherhood at this moment is a ghastly error on the scale of Carter’s Iran mistakes. Americans may well be looking back on this decision with regret for many years to come.

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Not Great Timing for McCain Endorsement

There was no doubt John McCain would back Mitt Romney for the nomination. The question is, why did the campaign decide to roll this out today, of all days? It’s understandable that Romney would want a big endorsement to help sustain the buzz over his Iowa victory. But the narrative coming out of Iowa is that Romney still has a lukewarm relationship with the base, and he’s only playing into that by appearing with the bane of the conservative grassroots.

There are still conservatives out there who hold a grudge against McCain for losing in 2008, and – rationally or not – cling to the idea that if Republicans had only nominated a more conservative candidate, Obama would never have won the election. McCain’s endorsement is helpful for Romney in New Hampshire, but maybe he should have waited a day or two for the post-Iowa chatter to die down before making the announcement.

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There was no doubt John McCain would back Mitt Romney for the nomination. The question is, why did the campaign decide to roll this out today, of all days? It’s understandable that Romney would want a big endorsement to help sustain the buzz over his Iowa victory. But the narrative coming out of Iowa is that Romney still has a lukewarm relationship with the base, and he’s only playing into that by appearing with the bane of the conservative grassroots.

There are still conservatives out there who hold a grudge against McCain for losing in 2008, and – rationally or not – cling to the idea that if Republicans had only nominated a more conservative candidate, Obama would never have won the election. McCain’s endorsement is helpful for Romney in New Hampshire, but maybe he should have waited a day or two for the post-Iowa chatter to die down before making the announcement.

Rick Santorum has already used the opportunity to take a swipe at Romney’s moderate record:

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Santorum said when asked about McCain’s planned endorsement. “You know, I would’ve expected that. …

He added: “John is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in more with Newt’s — excuse me, with Mitt’s — view of the world. And I wish him the very best, and again, I have nothing but respect for John McCain.”

Gingrich also pushed the narrative that Romney won’t be able to seal the deal with the GOP base. “The fact is, Gov. Romney has a very limited appeal in a conservative party,” Gingrich said, describing Romney as “a moderate Massachusetts Republican to the left of the vast majority of Republicans.”

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Spending Other People’s Money

One reason so many governments–municipal, state, federal, and foreign–are in deep financial trouble is that politicians spend above their governments’ incomes in order to curry favor with selected constituents, borrowing (and cooking the books) rather than taxing to make up the shortfall. But one reason so many economies are in deep trouble is that politicians also like to spend other people’s money in order to, well, curry favor with selected constituents.

There are a number of ways to do this, each and everyone of them economically pernicious. Richard Epstein, a distinguished law professor at NYU, has an article in today’s Wall Street Journal about rent control. Professor Epstein gives us the good news that it is possible the Supreme Court will take up a case that could result in the overthrow of rent control laws, which set maximum rents for properties, supposedly to make them “affordable” (and, of course, to get the favored tenant to vote for the political advocates of rent control). But forcing a landlord to rent an apartment for below the market rate is, almost literally, taking the landlord’s money and giving it to someone else.

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One reason so many governments–municipal, state, federal, and foreign–are in deep financial trouble is that politicians spend above their governments’ incomes in order to curry favor with selected constituents, borrowing (and cooking the books) rather than taxing to make up the shortfall. But one reason so many economies are in deep trouble is that politicians also like to spend other people’s money in order to, well, curry favor with selected constituents.

There are a number of ways to do this, each and everyone of them economically pernicious. Richard Epstein, a distinguished law professor at NYU, has an article in today’s Wall Street Journal about rent control. Professor Epstein gives us the good news that it is possible the Supreme Court will take up a case that could result in the overthrow of rent control laws, which set maximum rents for properties, supposedly to make them “affordable” (and, of course, to get the favored tenant to vote for the political advocates of rent control). But forcing a landlord to rent an apartment for below the market rate is, almost literally, taking the landlord’s money and giving it to someone else.

Another much favored means of spending someone else’s money for political purposes is via minimum wage laws, which force employers to pay more than market rates for human labor. The New York Times had an editorial in favor of them yesterday. Again, the employer has to fork over cash, this time quite literally, to someone else, for that person’s benefit. (In the case of minimum wage laws, the prime beneficiaries are not those paid the minimum wage, it is members of labor unions, whose wages are often set as a multiple of the minimum wage.)

The politicians are saying, in effect, “Hey, A, you need help. I’ll take care of it. Don’t forget me on election day. Hey, B, help A or I’ll have you arrested.”

In both cases, the government is indulging in price fixing. But a price in a free market is merely an indication of the interplay between demand and supply and a powerful signal regarding where investment should be directed. As soon as the price is fixed, distortions inevitably begin. If you want to cause a scarcity, set the price below the market. Presto: apartments are hard to find. Why build more apartments to meet demand, if the government won’t let you get a decent return on your investment? Want to cause a glut? Just set the price above the market. Presto, teenage and unskilled workers have unemployment rates well into double digits. Black markets, off-the-books transactions, and bribes flourish whenever prices are fixed, all of which adversely impact tax collection.

Liberals have always tended to regard the laws of economics as optional. They’re not, anymore than the laws of physics.

 

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Santorum Impressive in Iowa, But Romney Still in Catbird Seat

In assessing what happened last night in Iowa, I agree with the conventional wisdom in several respects.

The first is that what Rick Santorum achieved in the Iowa caucuses was remarkable. It was a testament to his skills as a candidate and his virtues (including fortitude) as a man. Santorum was methodical, patient, and committed to his cause. He has proven to be a formidable debater. And in the last few weeks in particular, Santorum came across as less intense, less abrasive, and more likeable. His speech last night was at times touching and uplifting, as well as politically smart.

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In assessing what happened last night in Iowa, I agree with the conventional wisdom in several respects.

The first is that what Rick Santorum achieved in the Iowa caucuses was remarkable. It was a testament to his skills as a candidate and his virtues (including fortitude) as a man. Santorum was methodical, patient, and committed to his cause. He has proven to be a formidable debater. And in the last few weeks in particular, Santorum came across as less intense, less abrasive, and more likeable. His speech last night was at times touching and uplifting, as well as politically smart.

Senator Santorum is a man of deep and impressive convictions. He’s the only candidate who speaks about the importance of the family and our social institutions, including their influence on economics (broken families are much more likely to be in poverty than intact families). And his appeal to blue collar voters explains why he’s won impressive races in a state that is not always well disposed toward conservatives.

Santorum has vulnerabilities, and you can be sure they’ll be exploited in the next few weeks. The question is whether he can take advantage of this moment in a way that none of the other “non-Romney candidates” (Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich) have so far. Santorum is a far more serious and impressive politician than Bachmann, Cain, and Perry. And he has far less “baggage” than Gingrich. He is, then, arguably the most plausible conservative alternative to Romney who has yet emerged. Still, having now risen to near the top, can Santorum stay there? We’re about to find out.

I also agree with many pundits that Newt Gingrich’s speech last night brought back ghosts of Gingrich past. The former Speaker began the day accusing Romney of being a liar and ended it with a graceless and bitter speech. He showed the chronic indiscipline which concerns many conservatives. The “new” Newt gave way to the old one, and right now the main task Gingrich faces is to regain his emotional equilibrium.

But there are several storylines emerging from which I dissent:

1. The fact that Mitt Romney won the Iowa race by eight votes rather than lost it by eight votes doesn’t matter. Yes it does. Governor Romney won a state that he lost four years ago and he was expected to lose, at least until a few weeks ago, this year. Iowa is not favorable terrain for Romney – and while he won the same percentage of the vote in 2012 as he did in 2008 (25 percent), he won. And winning is always better, much better, than losing. The story from Iowa that captured the political imagination of much of the country was the rise of Rick Santorum. But as we move further away from Iowa, the salient political fact will be that Romney carried the state, even if it was only by eight votes.

2. Yesterday’s results demonstrated that Mitt Romney is a weak frontrunner. I’ll stick with my earlier prediction, which is that Governor Romney is in the catbird seat. I wrote that if Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has a significant lead right now, it’s hard to see how he would lose the nomination, particularly given his enormous advantages in money and organization.

Remember, no GOP presidential candidate since 1980 has won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary (Gerald Ford won both in 1976, but he was an incumbent president). Bear in mind, too, that the post-South Carolina calendar should favor Romney — and the likelihood is that Romney will enter the South Carolina election (January 21) having won two elections versus none for any of the other candidates. After South Carolina comes Florida (January 31), which is an expensive state to run in. And Romney has the money necessary to wage an air campaign. There’s no question Rick Santorum will raise money based on his impressive second-place finish in Iowa, but he’s still not on the same playing field as Romney when it comes to either money or organization. And Iowa, which one would assume would be (for ideological reasons) Santorum’s best state, is now in the rear-view mirror. New Hampshire, of course, is not nearly as conservative as Iowa (in 2008 New Hampshireites who considered themselves “somewhat conservative” outnumbered those who considered themselves “very conservative” by nearly 2-to-1). But few people realize South Carolina is also less conservative than Iowa. (As Henry Olsen points out in this National Affairs essay, even in supposedly ultra-conservative South Carolina, voters who consider themselves “somewhat conservative” and “very conservative” tied with 34 percent of the GOP electorate in 2008, with moderates and liberals nearly even at 32 percent.)

3. By the end of January the race will be more muddled than ever. Perhaps. But arguably, if Romney wins two of the four contests in January, and certainly if he wins three of four, then short of an epic collapse, the former Massachusetts governor is on his way to securing the GOP nomination. If Romney is going to be stopped, then January is the month in which it almost has to happen. Thanks to yesterday, the GOP frontrunner began the year in very good shape. And a week from now, post-New Hampshire, he might be in still better shape.

Rick Santorum accomplished an amazing feat in Iowa. But if he hopes to derail the Romney campaign, what happened yesterday needs to be only his opening act.

 

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Obama Statement Means No Iran Embargo

When Congress passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act last month that mandated a ban on all transactions with Iran’s Central Bank, it gave the administration the tool it needed to allow President Obama to make good on his promise to prevent Tehran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. Restrictions on dealing with the bank would make it possible to put into place an oil embargo on Iran, the one type of sanction that could bring the Islamist regime to its knees. But the inclusion of waivers in the bill at the White House’s request also made it possible that nothing would be done. Though the president signed the Act into law during the holiday weekend, the release of his signing statement confirms our doubts about his intentions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the statement explicitly noted the sanctions were passed over his objections and might interfere “with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations.” Obama’s statement bluntly warned Congress that if he was so inclined, “I will treat the provisions as nonbinding.” While administration officials said in spite of this, Obama still intended to pursue sanctions on the bank, the statement is a clear signal he has no such intentions.

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When Congress passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act last month that mandated a ban on all transactions with Iran’s Central Bank, it gave the administration the tool it needed to allow President Obama to make good on his promise to prevent Tehran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. Restrictions on dealing with the bank would make it possible to put into place an oil embargo on Iran, the one type of sanction that could bring the Islamist regime to its knees. But the inclusion of waivers in the bill at the White House’s request also made it possible that nothing would be done. Though the president signed the Act into law during the holiday weekend, the release of his signing statement confirms our doubts about his intentions.

As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the statement explicitly noted the sanctions were passed over his objections and might interfere “with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations.” Obama’s statement bluntly warned Congress that if he was so inclined, “I will treat the provisions as nonbinding.” While administration officials said in spite of this, Obama still intended to pursue sanctions on the bank, the statement is a clear signal he has no such intentions.

The stated motive for Obama’s reluctance to try to stop the flow of oil income to the ayatollahs’ coffers is that it would disrupt the global economy and raise oil prices. That is a real danger and one that ought to worry everyone, not just a weak incumbent desperate not to worsen the nation’s financial situation. But given that such an embargo is the only measure short of war that would halt Iran’s nuclear program, there is no other choice. If Obama continues to waste more time by engaging in feckless diplomacy to assemble an anti-Iran coalition that has no chance of coming into existence, an Iranian bomb will be the inevitable result. If Obama thinks an oil embargo would be disruptive, what does he think the impact of an Iranian bomb on the global economy or gas prices would be?

One of the co-authors of the bill, Sen. Mark Kirk, warned if the president fails to enforce these sanctions (as, in fact, the administration has not done with even the weaker existing sanctions already in place), then he would face serious political consequences. But it may be that, despite the 100-0 vote in favor of the amendment, Obama believes some in Congress were hoping he would do just that. The inclusion of the presidential waiver was an open invitation to inaction on the president’s part. He may think many members of both the House and the Senate are like him: big talkers about Iran but reluctant to do anything about this terrible threat that would require action or sacrifice.

Earlier today, Michael Rubin noted Turkey had already requested the administration grant its biggest refinery a waiver on dealing with the Iranian bank so as to continue the lucrative trade between the two nations and said Obama’s willingness to grant the quest would answer the question about whether he was serious about stopping Iran. Unfortunately, the answer may have already been given with the president’s effort to stop the bill’s passage and a signing statement that all but promised it would never be enforced.

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Obama’s Recess Appointment: Unconstitutional?

So far, Senate Republicans have successfully blocked President Obama from making controversial recess appointments by using procedural tactics to keep the Senate technically “in session” during the holidays. But with the political press distracted by the GOP race this week, as John Steele Gordon noted earlier today, Obama quietly broke precedent and appointed Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – despite protests from conservatives, who claim the move was illegal:

White House attorneys have argued that Obama has the authority to make the recess appointment after Senate Republicans blocked Cordray’s nomination last month. But opponents of the appointment argue that the Senate is not in recess, painting Obama’s move as a political power grab.

“Today, President Obama decided to bypass the Constitution and the system of checks and balances that have served our country so well,” Heritage Action for America CEO Michael Needham said in a statement. “Rather than heed the advice of the Senate, President Obama decided to embark on an arrogant and unprecedented power grab. This stunning appointment represents a fundamental threat to the balance of powers and the role of the legislature.”

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So far, Senate Republicans have successfully blocked President Obama from making controversial recess appointments by using procedural tactics to keep the Senate technically “in session” during the holidays. But with the political press distracted by the GOP race this week, as John Steele Gordon noted earlier today, Obama quietly broke precedent and appointed Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – despite protests from conservatives, who claim the move was illegal:

White House attorneys have argued that Obama has the authority to make the recess appointment after Senate Republicans blocked Cordray’s nomination last month. But opponents of the appointment argue that the Senate is not in recess, painting Obama’s move as a political power grab.

“Today, President Obama decided to bypass the Constitution and the system of checks and balances that have served our country so well,” Heritage Action for America CEO Michael Needham said in a statement. “Rather than heed the advice of the Senate, President Obama decided to embark on an arrogant and unprecedented power grab. This stunning appointment represents a fundamental threat to the balance of powers and the role of the legislature.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is warning the White House it can expect lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of making an appointment when the Senate hasn’t been in recess for longer than three days. Even President Obama’s own Department of Justice defended the three-day rule during a Supreme Court hearing last year, Joel Gherke reports:

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: And the recess appointment power doesn’t work why?

MR. KATYAL: The — the recess appointment power can work in — in a recess. I think our office has opined the recess has to be longer than 3 days. And — and so, it is potentially available to avert the future crisis that — that could — that could take place with respect to the board. If there are no other questions –

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Thank you, counsel.

Republicans are right to demand structural changes to the CFPB, but holding up Cordray’s appointment in return for reforms wasn’t getting them far. And they probably weren’t going to win that fight in the court of public opinion.

However, the constitutionality of Obama’s appointment is something that should be challenged, especially since it has potentially harmful ramifications. If Obama can appoint Cordray to the CFPB, than he can certainly make appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, as the left is currently haranguing him to do. In fact, the Cordray appointment will only intensify the drumbeat for NLRB appointments. So it’s understandable that Republicans want to block this precedent from taking hold.

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U.S. Must Diversify Arsenal Against China

A team of Wall Street Journal reporters has a good overview today of China’s military buildup. They focus on the development of long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles which put at risk U.S. aircraft carriers, including the newest one, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which is still under construction. They raise legitimate if hardly new questions about whether aircraft carriers are relics of a past age of naval warfare.

Those kinds of questions are almost impossible to settle in peacetime; it was only after the Pacific War broke out, for example, that it became clear to strategists of all nations that battleships were outdated and aircraft carriers were the new capital ships of the future. Some visionaries had foreseen this eventuality in the 1930s but no navy–not even the Japanese, whose development of aircraft carriers made possible the raid on Pearl Harbor–was willing to stop building battleships and invest all of its resources in carriers. Likewise today, it is hard to imagine the U.S. Navy deep-sixing aircraft carriers even if they are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese attack if for no other reason than they remain such valuable instruments of power projection near countries such as Iran or Pakistan which lack China’s military capabilities.

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A team of Wall Street Journal reporters has a good overview today of China’s military buildup. They focus on the development of long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles which put at risk U.S. aircraft carriers, including the newest one, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which is still under construction. They raise legitimate if hardly new questions about whether aircraft carriers are relics of a past age of naval warfare.

Those kinds of questions are almost impossible to settle in peacetime; it was only after the Pacific War broke out, for example, that it became clear to strategists of all nations that battleships were outdated and aircraft carriers were the new capital ships of the future. Some visionaries had foreseen this eventuality in the 1930s but no navy–not even the Japanese, whose development of aircraft carriers made possible the raid on Pearl Harbor–was willing to stop building battleships and invest all of its resources in carriers. Likewise today, it is hard to imagine the U.S. Navy deep-sixing aircraft carriers even if they are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese attack if for no other reason than they remain such valuable instruments of power projection near countries such as Iran or Pakistan which lack China’s military capabilities.

But the Journal article does raise the need, which is undeniable, to diversify our arsenal–and especially to build longer-range unmanned fighter and bomber aircraft that could project power against China from a safe distance. That points to the need to continue spending lots of money on defense–just at a time when, as I argue in the current issue of COMMENTARY, Washington seems to be bent on a suicidal binge of defense cuts.

The only way to ensure we will not have to fight a war against China is to keep our deterrent strong. That means projecting a full spectrum of costly military capabilities. This is only one area of many where the political imperative to cut defense costs today could prove highly costly in the future.

 

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The Politics of National Geographic?

Yesterday, I posted a piece sparked by the recent controversy about the Girl Scouts’ endorsement of the leftist group Media Matters to argue that, while limelight led the Girl Scouts to reverse course, such inappropriate politicization of ostensibly non-partisan groups was not uncommon. As an example, I cited National Geographic’s 2004 endorsement of the fiercely political and often anti-Semitic website of University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole.

Several Contentions readers wrote me with their own criticisms of National Geographic’s willingness to embrace partisanship if not outright propaganda. One pointed me to an article published by National Geographic in October 2002, entitled, “Lines in the Sand – Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza,” placed online by the organization without a pay wall. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) responded to that piece, documenting a number of factual errors which National Geographic declined to correct.

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Yesterday, I posted a piece sparked by the recent controversy about the Girl Scouts’ endorsement of the leftist group Media Matters to argue that, while limelight led the Girl Scouts to reverse course, such inappropriate politicization of ostensibly non-partisan groups was not uncommon. As an example, I cited National Geographic’s 2004 endorsement of the fiercely political and often anti-Semitic website of University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole.

Several Contentions readers wrote me with their own criticisms of National Geographic’s willingness to embrace partisanship if not outright propaganda. One pointed me to an article published by National Geographic in October 2002, entitled, “Lines in the Sand – Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza,” placed online by the organization without a pay wall. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) responded to that piece, documenting a number of factual errors which National Geographic declined to correct.

Another reader e-mailed me to describe a National Geographic photography exhibition:

Last year, I attended a photo exhibit at the Annenberg gallery in Century City (Los Angeles) curated by National Geographic called “Water.” Great photos, all nonpolitical, except the ten or so that dealt with water in the Middle East. These showed pictures of fat, sassy Israelis laying around in huge pools, and pictures of Palestinians parched with no water. The legend indicated the Israelis were depriving the Palestinians of water.

Finally, a reader pointed me to Robert M. Poole’s Explorers House, which he says in one part describes the magazine’s embrace of a Nazi propagandist. If you have an Amazon account and sign-in, just search inside the book for “Douglas Chandler.” It certainly looks like an interesting read and is now next on my list.

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Perry Won’t Give Up on South Carolina

Newt Gingrich is deflating in South Carolina, down 10 points from his 43-percent peak in early December. If that follows the trend from Iowa, Gingrich still has a way to go before he reaches his bottom. And those votes haven’t been picked up by any of the other candidates; they’re still sitting on the sidelines. With Michele Bachmann out of the race, and Gingrich and Rick Santorum low on funds and organization, Rick Perry may think he has an opening here:

A determined Rick Perry said Wednesday he will not abandon his presidential campaign despite a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

“And the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State. … Here we come South Carolina!!!” the Texas governor wrote on his Twitter account.

Perry, an avid runner, attached a photo of himself jogging near a lake, wearing Texas A&M running shorts and showing a thumbs-up.

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Newt Gingrich is deflating in South Carolina, down 10 points from his 43-percent peak in early December. If that follows the trend from Iowa, Gingrich still has a way to go before he reaches his bottom. And those votes haven’t been picked up by any of the other candidates; they’re still sitting on the sidelines. With Michele Bachmann out of the race, and Gingrich and Rick Santorum low on funds and organization, Rick Perry may think he has an opening here:

A determined Rick Perry said Wednesday he will not abandon his presidential campaign despite a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

“And the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State. … Here we come South Carolina!!!” the Texas governor wrote on his Twitter account.

Perry, an avid runner, attached a photo of himself jogging near a lake, wearing Texas A&M running shorts and showing a thumbs-up.

Then again, Perry’s stumping and ad money haven’t helped him reclaim his footing in South Carolina so far, so what’s making him think voters there will change their minds now? Bachmann’s support in the state isn’t substantial enough to matter much, even if Perry somehow managed to pick up all 7 percent of her voters.

But Perry’s decision will definitely make things more difficult for Santorum, by splitting the social conservative vote. The two will be competing for the same supporters, and Perry’s cash advantage, infrastructure, and connections in the state mean Santorum will have to a lot to catch up on. In the end, a drawn-out fight for the social conservative vote may actually help propel Mitt Romney to victory this way – an interesting possibility, considering the fact that many of Perry’s most adamant supporters are die-hard anti-Romney types.

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Will Debates Boost Newt Once Again?

Do you think President Obama is “a nice guy, but just is [in] over his head,” or do you think the president is “utterly irrational”? You can probably guess the author of each of those assessments–Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, in that order. It’s one reason Gingrich emerged as such a threat to Romney: he’s not running to patronize the president or mentor him; he’s running to beat him.

Gingrich delivered this line at a mid-December candidates’ debate. It was probably the single best answer at a debate thus far, and it’s why Gingrich remains a threat: there will be two debates before next week’s New Hampshire primary, two before the South Carolina primary that follows it, and two before the crucial Florida primary after that.

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Do you think President Obama is “a nice guy, but just is [in] over his head,” or do you think the president is “utterly irrational”? You can probably guess the author of each of those assessments–Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, in that order. It’s one reason Gingrich emerged as such a threat to Romney: he’s not running to patronize the president or mentor him; he’s running to beat him.

Gingrich delivered this line at a mid-December candidates’ debate. It was probably the single best answer at a debate thus far, and it’s why Gingrich remains a threat: there will be two debates before next week’s New Hampshire primary, two before the South Carolina primary that follows it, and two before the crucial Florida primary after that.

Here’s the video of Gingrich’s home run:

Last night, by contrast, Gingrich summoned not congenial self-deprecation and restrained consternation at an overly ideological president in thrall to special interests, but a bitterness at Romney that is boiling over. Rick Santorum’s near-victory last night poses another problem on this count for Gingrich: Santorum’s speech after the votes were counted was not only positive, but possibly the best speech any GOP candidate has delivered yet this cycle.

Gingrich is a better debater than Santorum, so much is at stake for both this weekend, when there will be two debates. But if the contrast between the two leading “not-Romneys” goes in favor of Santorum, it will be because Santorum earned it, and because Gingrich stopped effectively reminding voters what this process is ultimately about.

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A Faux Peace with the Taliban Is No Excuse for Pulling the Plug on Afghanistan

News that the Taliban have agreed to open an office in Qatar is being greeted as a breakthrough in negotiating an end to the Afghan war. It is supposedly a sign the Taliban are genuinely committed to peace talks. Perhaps so, but count me as skeptical.

It is worth recalling the North Vietnamese government was hardly averse to negotiating even while its troops and Viet Cong proxies were battling U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Indeed, Hanoi was even willing to sign the 1973 Paris Peace Accord supposedly ending the Vietnam war. But that was not a sign the Communists had given up their goal of dominating the South. It was merely a sign they were willing to use talk of peace along with acts of war to achieve their objectives. The Paris Peace Accord turned out to be the best move they ever made, because it terminated U.S. aid to Saigon. Just two years later, buttressed by aid from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon.

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News that the Taliban have agreed to open an office in Qatar is being greeted as a breakthrough in negotiating an end to the Afghan war. It is supposedly a sign the Taliban are genuinely committed to peace talks. Perhaps so, but count me as skeptical.

It is worth recalling the North Vietnamese government was hardly averse to negotiating even while its troops and Viet Cong proxies were battling U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Indeed, Hanoi was even willing to sign the 1973 Paris Peace Accord supposedly ending the Vietnam war. But that was not a sign the Communists had given up their goal of dominating the South. It was merely a sign they were willing to use talk of peace along with acts of war to achieve their objectives. The Paris Peace Accord turned out to be the best move they ever made, because it terminated U.S. aid to Saigon. Just two years later, buttressed by aid from China and the Soviet Union, the North Vietnamese army rolled into Saigon.

It would hardly be surprising if the Taliban are interested in pursuing a similar strategy today. If I were Mullah Omar that is precisely what I would do: Sign some peace of paper promising an end to support for international terrorism and perhaps to domestic terrorism as well, then, after the U.S. has pulled out (as we have signaled we will do by the end of 2014 in any case), march on Kandahar and then Kabul. The large segment of Afghan society that fears a resurgence of Taliban rule–especially among the Tajiks, Hazaras and other ethnic minorities–is afraid of precisely this scenario, which is why they mutter about the prospects of civil war whenever negotiations with the Taliban appear to be heating up. Far from guaranteeing peace, an agreement with the Taliban–if made before they are actually defeated–would most likely be consigning Afghanistan to the same kind of hellish Hobbesian struggle the country saw in the 1990s.

None of this is an argument against talking to the Taliban; we talked to the Soviets throughout the Cold War, and there is always some value in sounding out one’s adversaries. But it is an argument for not inflating our expectations and especially for not using a faux peace with the Taliban as an excuse for pulling the plug on our commitment to Afghanistan’s future.

 

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When Is Congress in Recess?

The AP is reporting that President Obama intends to use a recess appointment today to name Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This is a considerable escalation of the war between the White House and the Senate over recess appointments that I wrote about in Contentions in 2010, because the Senate is not in recess. The Constitution requires that neither house of Congress can recess for more than three days without the consent of the other house. The House of Representatives has not given that consent and has been holding pro forma sessions every three days, forcing the Senate to do likewise. When Democrats controlled the Senate in the last two years of the Bush administration, they held these pro forma sessions during recesses precisely to prevent President Bush from using the recess appointment power, which he didn’t.

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The AP is reporting that President Obama intends to use a recess appointment today to name Richard Cordray as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This is a considerable escalation of the war between the White House and the Senate over recess appointments that I wrote about in Contentions in 2010, because the Senate is not in recess. The Constitution requires that neither house of Congress can recess for more than three days without the consent of the other house. The House of Representatives has not given that consent and has been holding pro forma sessions every three days, forcing the Senate to do likewise. When Democrats controlled the Senate in the last two years of the Bush administration, they held these pro forma sessions during recesses precisely to prevent President Bush from using the recess appointment power, which he didn’t.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Clinton Justice Department decided in 1993 that this practice effectively prevents recess appointments:

The Constitution does not specify the length of time that the Senate must be in recess before the President may make a recess appointment. Over time, the Department of Justice has offered differing views on this question, and no settled understanding appears to exist. In 1993, however, a Department of Justice brief implied that the President may make a recess appointment during a recess of more than three days. In doing so, the brief linked the minimum recess length with Article I, Section 5, clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution. This “Adjournments Clause” provides that “Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days ….”Arguing that the recess during which the appointment at issue in the case was made was of sufficient length, the brief stated: “If the recess here at issue were of three days or less, a closer question would be presented. The Constitution restricts the Senate’’s ability to adjourn its session for more than three days without obtaining the consent of the House of Representatives. … It might be argued that this means that the Framers did not consider one, two and three day recesses to be constitutionally significant. …Apart from the three-day requirement noted above, the Constitution provides no basis for limiting the recess to a specific number of days. Whatever number of days is deemed required, that number would of necessity be completely arbitrary.”

There is little question the Framers created the power of recess appointments for use in the long periods of time when Congress was out of session in the early years of the Republic. (Until the 20th century–and air conditioning–Congress was rarely in session for more than six months, convening in early December, and adjourning before the Washington summer descended upon the city.)

The AP laconically notes that “Obama’s decision to make a recess appointment is certain to cause an uproar from Capitol Hill to Wall Street. He is essentially declaring the Senate’s short off-and-on legislative sessions a sham intended to block his appointments.” They are, of course, a constitutional sham, a sham designed to prevent the president from abusing the power to make recess appointments.

It will be interesting to see if a court challenge develops. Courts hate getting in the middle of a dispute between the other two branches. But is the president not arrogating to himself the power to decide when Congress is in recess? If he has that power, what else can he dictate to Congress?

 

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Turkey to Hamas: Next Year in Jerusalem

No, it’s not Passover yet. That’s the promise, however, from Ömer Çelik, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, which like Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Çelik quipped, “We hope we can freely sit and chat in Jerusalem soon.” That would be like Benjamin Netanyahu telling Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani that perhaps, God willing, the two could sit down in Diyarbakir, the capital of a free Kurdistan.

When the deputy head of Turkey’s ruling party meets with a terrorist leader to encourage territorial conquest, perhaps it’s time for Israel to play hardball.

No, it’s not Passover yet. That’s the promise, however, from Ömer Çelik, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s ruling party, the Justice and Development Party, which like Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Çelik quipped, “We hope we can freely sit and chat in Jerusalem soon.” That would be like Benjamin Netanyahu telling Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani that perhaps, God willing, the two could sit down in Diyarbakir, the capital of a free Kurdistan.

When the deputy head of Turkey’s ruling party meets with a terrorist leader to encourage territorial conquest, perhaps it’s time for Israel to play hardball.

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Does Near-Tie With Santorum Actually Benefit Romney?

S.E. Cupp at the New York Daily News makes an interesting case for why Mitt Romney benefits from his close call with Rick Santorum:

Now, prepare to see Santorum in every headline, on every news show, rising in every poll. The other candidates (what’s left of them) have him to go after him this week. And Santorum has his third place finisher, Ron Paul to attack (we got a preview of that last week). The pundits and odds makers will devote a substantial amount of airtime to hyperventilating about whether the Santorum surge can stick, and whether Paul’s rabid fans will follow him from Iowa to New Hampshire.

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S.E. Cupp at the New York Daily News makes an interesting case for why Mitt Romney benefits from his close call with Rick Santorum:

Now, prepare to see Santorum in every headline, on every news show, rising in every poll. The other candidates (what’s left of them) have him to go after him this week. And Santorum has his third place finisher, Ron Paul to attack (we got a preview of that last week). The pundits and odds makers will devote a substantial amount of airtime to hyperventilating about whether the Santorum surge can stick, and whether Paul’s rabid fans will follow him from Iowa to New Hampshire.

I’m not so sure Santorum will forgo attacking Romney in order to go after Ron Paul. (What’s the point? Paul has no chance at the nomination, and his supporters aren’t exactly Santorum’s target audience.) As for Newt Gingrich – really the only other candidate left, since Paul is untenable, and Bachmann and Perry both seem to be on the way out – he’ll certainly have no reservations attacking Romney at the upcoming debate.

But Cupp’s main point, that the bulk of the media scrutiny will be on Santorum, is a good one. Romney is boring, squeaky clean, and whatever skeletons might remain in his closet probably aren’t the salacious type. Santorum, on the other hand – just Google him. He’s the boogeyman of the gay rights and pro-choice movements; he’s said some provocative things about gay marriage. And he’s a part of the whole Religious Right cadre that the left always worries is resurgent. If you have any doubts the knives are out, just watch this video of Alan Colmes mocking the way Santorum handled the death of his child.

TPM and HuffPo have probably already dispatched entire teams of reporters to dig into Santorum’s religious and family background. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s just a fever pitch of hysterical left-wing scrutiny that Romney probably wouldn’t start to see until after he secured the nomination.

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Moment of Truth for Biting Iran Sanctions

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it takes the threat of Iran’s nuclear break-out seriously and yet, in order to have truly biting sanctions, the Congress had to go over both Obama’s head and that of the State Department.

Showing how serious sanctions can work, Iran’s currency has declined precipitously since Congress imposed the measures against Iran’s Central Bank. Now, Turkey—whose terrorist-embracing leader both President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta praise in the most effusive of terms—is requesting a waiver of U.S. sanctions so that its biggest refinery can deal with Iran’s Central Bank. The moment of truth is here. Is Obama serious about sanctions? Or would he prefer to kill two birds with one stone to help two adversaries at the expense of U.S. national security?

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it takes the threat of Iran’s nuclear break-out seriously and yet, in order to have truly biting sanctions, the Congress had to go over both Obama’s head and that of the State Department.

Showing how serious sanctions can work, Iran’s currency has declined precipitously since Congress imposed the measures against Iran’s Central Bank. Now, Turkey—whose terrorist-embracing leader both President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta praise in the most effusive of terms—is requesting a waiver of U.S. sanctions so that its biggest refinery can deal with Iran’s Central Bank. The moment of truth is here. Is Obama serious about sanctions? Or would he prefer to kill two birds with one stone to help two adversaries at the expense of U.S. national security?

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Iowa Postmortem: Romney’s Dilemma, Santorum’s Opportunity

Mitt Romney’s eight-vote win in the Iowa caucuses had to leave him feeling a lot better than an equally narrow loss to surprising Rick Santorum would have felt. His first place finish will undoubtedly be followed next week by another victory in New Hampshire that will set him on what has to be considered a fairly secure path to the Republican nomination. But the shakeout from the end of a torturously long night in Iowa brought with it some bad news along with the good.

If, as he seemed to indicate in his concession speech, Rick Perry ends his presidential bid, then that will, along with the collapse of Michele Bachmann’s campaign, leave Santorum as the only one left standing of the trio who competed for the votes of social conservatives. Just as ominous for Romney was Newt Gingrich’s all but spoken vow in his speech to spend the rest of the primary season attempting to exact revenge on Mitt for the barrage of negative advertising that helped drop him to fourth. Though that still leaves Romney free of the nightmare scenario in which the relative moderate is left to face a single ascendant conservative, his path the nomination looks a bit less rosy today than it did just 24 hours ago.

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Mitt Romney’s eight-vote win in the Iowa caucuses had to leave him feeling a lot better than an equally narrow loss to surprising Rick Santorum would have felt. His first place finish will undoubtedly be followed next week by another victory in New Hampshire that will set him on what has to be considered a fairly secure path to the Republican nomination. But the shakeout from the end of a torturously long night in Iowa brought with it some bad news along with the good.

If, as he seemed to indicate in his concession speech, Rick Perry ends his presidential bid, then that will, along with the collapse of Michele Bachmann’s campaign, leave Santorum as the only one left standing of the trio who competed for the votes of social conservatives. Just as ominous for Romney was Newt Gingrich’s all but spoken vow in his speech to spend the rest of the primary season attempting to exact revenge on Mitt for the barrage of negative advertising that helped drop him to fourth. Though that still leaves Romney free of the nightmare scenario in which the relative moderate is left to face a single ascendant conservative, his path the nomination looks a bit less rosy today than it did just 24 hours ago.

Santorum’s impressive surge in the last two weeks in Iowa brought him a virtual tie with Romney, with each getting just under a quarter of the total vote. That alone was enough to give his campaign new life, although he lacks money and organization elsewhere. Though evangelicals and other social conservatives don’t play as large a role in determining the outcome as they do in Iowa, with Perry and Bachmann effectively out of the picture, there’s no question Santorum must now be taken a lot more seriously.

There is not enough time left for Santorum to mount a serious challenge in New Hampshire, but with Perry out of the picture and Bachmann also fading, his prospects for a good showing in South Carolina just got a lot better. With the money he will raise off of his Iowa upset and the harvest of defectors from other conservatives that he will undoubtedly reap, the former Pennsylvania senator will have every chance to stay in the race and give Romney a tough fight all the way through the spring. At some point in the not-too-distant future, he will have to actually beat Romney somewhere to be considered a genuine threat. But though he must still be considered a long shot, a scenario in which Santorum becomes the GOP nominee is no longer unimaginable.

Newt Gingrich’s dismal fourth-place finish in Iowa after leading being in the lead only a few short weeks ago effectively killed his hopes to be the nominee last night. His inconsistent record and volatile personality eventually caught up with him. But he may still play an important role in deciding the race. Gingrich’s bitter concession speech was notable for both his praise of Santorum and an implicit vow to exact revenge on Romney for the blizzard of negative ads that helped sink him in Iowa. It’s not clear that Gingrich’s attacks can do all that much damage. For a man who has spent so much of his career spewing vitriol at his opponents, Gingrich’s whining was the height of hypocrisy. Yet if he concentrates his fire on Romney for the remainder of his time in the race, it could help keep the frontrunner on the defensive when he could otherwise be consolidating his lead.

Even scarier for Romney is a scenario in which Gingrich pulls out altogether at some point before Super Tuesday, leaving Santorum as the only viable “non-Romney” conservative still running. Given Gingrich’s ambition and obvious desire to remain a fixture at the upcoming televised debates that seems unlikely. But if it happens, it will put a spotlight on the one real negative for Romney coming out of Iowa: his demonstrated lack of appeal for conservatives. If by the end of February, Romney is left facing only a strengthened Santorum with extremist Ron Paul hovering on the margins, then talk of his inevitability will cease.

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